The BMW X5 continues to fit itself into the segment as a jack of all trades, with off-road capabilities, on-road manners, and a variety of powertrains.
The lineup starts with the base X5 and its familiar twin-turbocharged 300-horsepower, 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-6 engine. Offered either in sDrive35i rear-drive form or as the all-wheel-drive xDrive35i, it makes its peak torque from a low 1,200 rpm to 5,000 rpm. BMW promises 0-60 mph times of 6.1 seconds. We haven't had a chance to drive this version of the X5 yet, but have sampled the brilliant powerplant in BMW's sedans, and can't imagine dissatisfaction with its strong acceleration.
We've spent all our time in the diesel and V-8 models. The xDrive35d is powered by a 3.0-liter inline-6 turbodiesel engine, producing 255 hp and 413 lb-ft of torque. BMW promises 0-60 mph times of 6.7 seconds, and it's believable. We spent a half-day driving the X5 from Vancouver to its extra-urban Olympic ski village, and got into an easy rhythm with the turbodiesel, accelerating quickly into holes in city traffic and settling into a relatively quiet cruise. It develops its peak torque before 3,000 rpm, giving it the swift responses of the gas six, for the most part, with a moderate amount of the usual diesel drivetrain noises.
Opt into the most expensive X5, the xDrive50i, and you'll strap on BMW's twin-turbocharged 4.4-liter V-8, which spins off 445 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque, at engine speeds as low as 2,000 rpm. Peak torque arrives swiftly, and the X5's estimated 0-60 mph time is just 4.7 seconds. However, the speed doesn't arrive as a rush as the numbers might suggest. In part, it's because the standard all-wheel drive and adjustable suspension on the V-8 model manage the power delivery so well, and because the twin-turbo's so muted by the X5's sound-deadening materials.
The plug-in hybrid version, badged the X5 xDrive 40e, features BMW's turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, an electric motor packaged within the 8-speed automatic transmission, and a 9.2-kwh lithium-ion battery pack that can be charged back up to full in less than three hours on Level 2 (240V). Total output is 308 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque, and BMW says it can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds and drive on electricity alone for up to 14 miles.
The behavior of the hybrid system—and how much the gasoline engine stays off—depends both on the settings you select and how you drive the X5. In the MAX eDrive setting, the X5 is powered only by electric power except if you floor the accelerator; in this mode, speed is limited to 75 mph. Otherwise there's an AUTO eDrive setting that allows the gasoline engine to come on more often and at a lower speed (of around 45 mph).
In a driving experience of several hundred miles, we found the plug-in hybrid system to provide pleasant, quiet, and reasonably strong performance in its electric-only mode, combined with strong acceleration altogether. We noticed just a few rough shifts from the transmission under moderate acceleration; but overall, this is a system that's good for both off-roading and towing.
All X5s are equipped with an 8-speed automatic with paddle shift controls. The transmission is part of the suite of controls that are affected when the driver chooses Eco Pro mode on a console-mounted switch. Eco Pro mode slows down throttle response, triggers earlier upshifts into the 8-speed's more economical gears, and lets the X5 coast under some conditions by decoupling the engine; it even chooses some navigation routes for the optimum fuel efficiency.
All X5s have electric power steering, and choosing Eco Pro also lightens the effort and heft engineered into it. Like most systems of its kind, the X5's electric power steering doesn't offer much in the way of feedback, and dithers on-center no matter if it's in Eco Pro or its Comfort setting. In Sport and Sport+, the steering has the meaty feel that's become common to most BMWs: pause the wheel at a point midway through a corner, and there's immediate buildup, a wall of return force to climb as you unwind it. With the available Active Steering, the ratio varies as speeds and cornering forces build. It can be an unwelcome variable in sports cars, but in sport utes like the X5, it's more useful, making size and overall length less of a liability when parking or driving in town.
The techno feel of the rack flows through to the X5's strut and control-arm independent suspension, which in most cases and configurations, gets augmented by adaptive dampers and rear air springs. Dynamic Damper Control puts automatically adjusting shocks at the corners; they're set to work in concert with the steering, throttle, and transmission, through the same Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport, and Sport+ modes. Adaptive shocks give the X5 a constant sense of stability. We haven't driven an X5 with the non-adaptive suspension, but with this vehicle's mass and performance capability, the adaptive suspension is likely to be the preferred setup and it should also include the add-on self-leveling rear air springs. These features make the X5 a resolutely flat handler in corners, not entirely forgiving with its ride quality but only truly harsh with the biggest wheels in the most aggressively controlled modes.
The xDrive all-wheel drive system provides a variable torque split front to back, not to mention interaction with traction, stability, and hill-descent control systems. If you're truly planning to take the X5 off-road, xDrive will show how it apportions power on the big LCD screen atop the center console. We climbed some moderately challenging lumps on the trails surrounding Vancouver 2010's ski jumps, and slogged through some mud without a misstep. It's more in the Ford Explorer/Volkswagen Touareg camp of light off-road capability than in the Range Rover Sport take-no-prisoners talent pool, but the X5 should have no problem making it to a remote-ish cabin in the woods.
If you're truly using the X5 just as a commuting vehicle, you may never encounter any instance so exotic as to need the upgraded Dynamic Performance Control setup, but like other similar systems, it lets the X5 vary the torque split between the rear wheels, to let it turn in more crisply and change lanes more cleanly.